Fuzz, Overdrive, and Distortion Pedals: The Complete Guide to Dirt

There are as many guitar tones as there are guitar players. Knowing this, it's only obvious that there are going to be different preferences in the choice of guitar distortion. We know that there are three distinct types of dirt boxes out there – overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. We can hear the differences between them, but it would be interesting to know a bit more about the technical side and the secrets behind their exact sonic properties. So let us dig in more into this topic.

Before we begin, you need to know that overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are all considered to be under the umbrella term of "distortion" in audio processing. These three names just got stuck among the guitar players over the years.

Clean signal vs distortion

Firstly, the clean, unaltered, guitar signal can be represented as one continuous sine curve. Of course, it has its wavelength and its peak-to-peak amplitude. The distortion occurs when the clean signal's amplitude gets big enough to reach the threshold of the amp or any other device that you're playing through. As a result, the signal gets "clipped" and sounds distorted.

The idea with distortion devices is to achieve this clipping on purpose, both by increasing the signal's amplitude and by cutting it off. For this purpose, distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals use operational amplifiers (a.k.a. op-amps) and transistors and/or diodes. The op-amps amplify the signal, while the diodes and transistors cut it off. It's mostly the type of clipping that determines the type of distortion.

As opposed to the distortion devices, clean booster pedals just boost the signal without cutting it. This kind of devices can be used to boost the signal and push the tube guitar amplifiers to their limits and achieve that "organic" distortion they produce. Back in the day, guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi used the Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster treble booster to achieve the effect.


And with the overdrive pedals, we have the case of "soft clipping." The wave is not cut abruptly, and the curve still somewhat resembles the sine curve of the clean signal. The resulting tone gets close to those vintage tones of clean tube amps pushed over their limits. It's what you would hear in standard blues or blues-rock music.

At the same time, overdrive pedals can be used to add a different "color" to the already distorted tone or to push the tube amps over their limits while adding a bit of their own flavor. A great example here is the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer.


Although all of the three effects fall into the distortion category, what guitarists refer to as "distortion" is distortion with hard clipping. The curve of a clean signal is cut abruptly, and we the tone that can be described as "scorched" or "fried."

The distortion pedals most often find their way in heavier music, like hard rock and heavy metal (with all its sub-genres). There are even distortions specifically designed for metal music, although they're often used for other genres as well.

One of the most popular distortion pedals of all time is the legendary DS-1 by Boss. Designed back in the 1970s, it's still being produced to this day, making it one of the best selling pedal models of all time.


And fuzz effect is just a whole new level of distortion, bringing that fuzzy and mushy tone with rich harmonic content. Here we have the case of "extreme" clipping where the signal wave gets the shape of a square. This kind of tone is achieved by implementing transistors only, without the use of op-amps (although some fuzz pedals might implement op-amps).

The fuzz goes way back to the early 1960s when some of the guitar heroes of the era exploited faulty equipment to get this tone, like Grady Martin on Marty Robbins' song "Don't Worry." The first-ever commercially produced distortion pedal was Maestro FT-1 Fuzz-Tone, although it was not initially marketed as one, but rather a quirky effect device for bass guitars.

Another legendary fuzz pedal is the Fuzz Face, originally produced by Arbiter Electronics back in the late 1960s. These days, this same circuit is being made by Dunlop, although it implements silicone and not germanium transistors.

Compression as a result

All these types of distortion achieve some dynamic compression. When you look at the clipped curve shape, you can clearly see that it resembles a compressed signal.

And this can be heard and felt when you play. Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals add some compression to your guitar tone. This is especially noticeable with the fuzz effect, and this might be one of the reasons why it doesn't sit so well with some of the guitar players out there.

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